Transgender – Defining Roles in a Gender Landscape in Flux

This lesson today is for baby boomers who don’t know a transgender person, may never meet a transgender person but still either insist on dealing with transgender issues on a very superficial level or to bring along a suitcase full of prejudices, biases, misconceptions, damning scripture and generations of sexual repression to the next family outing. Family outing, indeed.

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In a few years our kind, BABY BOOMER ERECTUS, will be gone. Our antiquated ideas, our thin skins, our adversity to change will be what did us in.

But in the meantime, I’m here to learn and teach, to experience different cultures both foreign and domestic, and to make a real connection with my fellow human beings on many levels. Part of that process is finding my hidden layers of bias hidden even from me: the habit of sizing up an acquaintance at a glance, of being so sure we feel their pain.

This lesson today is for baby boomers who don’t know a transgender person, may never meet a transgender person but still either insist to deal with their issues on a very superficial level or to bring along a suitcase full of prejudices, biases, misconceptions, damning scripture and generations of sexual repression to the next family outing. Family outing, indeed.

There are those in the LGBTQ who may learn a little or a lot depending on their community. And that’s good because as Ezra says, some people are confused, intolerant, downright hostile, and adverse to change. And it’s not about being “too old” to not only tolerate a new point of view, but to embrace it. Some, like Ezra Samuels, are lucky to have been born into a progressive atmosphere and a family that surrounded them with love and acceptance. Ezra is nonbinary and transgender.

“You said friends, family, and work had been totally accepting?” I prodded.

“Yeah, which has been even more surprising and wonderful considering I’ve worked in the Jewish field my whole life. The only non-Jewish jobs I’ve had we’re babysitting and things like that… I’ve worked in the Jewish professional world as an educator;now I’m working for organizations doing some administrative stuff, but even still they’re religious organizations and they’re like, “Trans kid? Great! Welcome to the team!” They emphasize the accepting attitude with two thumbs up.

“My grandfather who is no longer with us, had an uncle; his uncle is still alive, he’s ninety-seven. My great-great uncle called me on the phone, ‘Hey Ez, I was just thinking about you and I wanted to call my niece, sorry, my nephew, my bad.’ Ninety-seven-years-old. He made a slip-up, he politely corrected himself and moved on; he didn’t make a big deal of it. He handled it so perfectly. So I don’t believe that age or generational difference is an excuse for being a dick to queer people, frankly because they’re ninety-seven years old and they love me enough to learn and figure it out. Yes, they’ve made mistakes but if you really care about someone, your age or your generational conditioning is not that big of a problem.”

“Do you have compassion for people who say they can’t understand?”

“I don’t have compassion when they say, ‘oh I’m too old to understand; it’s just my generation.’ However I do have compassion for the length of time that it might take to adjust. I understand that they/them pronouns being a singular pronoun; it was added to a dictionary like two years ago. One of the things I’ve always said is that I’m not the only one transitioning; everyone in my life is transitioning with me. It took me years to figure out who I am; why would I expect someone to adjust like that? [Ezra snaps their fingers] The only thing that I expect is exactly what my uncle did; eight years later he still slips up and then he corrects himself and moves on. It’s that respectful understanding of, ‘I’m not going to place my hardships on you; you’re not going to place your hardships on me, but I love and care about you enough to figure it out with you.’”

“Sounds pretty compassionate to me.”

Ezra shrugs. “I try really hard. It’s very frustrating but I understand where it comes from and I try not to get too upset about it.”

“Have you been in support groups?”

“Yes. When I was in high school there was a group called the Rainbow Umbrella in Ventura where I was born and raised. It was for anybody who identified as LGBTQ. It wasn’t like a therapy support group; it was just a place for queer kids to hang out together and know other queer kids. It’s a huge problem in the queer community: often, especially youth feel very isolated. They only have straight friends and family members, they don’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of, anybody to learn from. There were people in their thirties there [at Rainbow Umbrella] who acted as mentors and we teenagers were like, ‘Yay, I know people!’“

“Have you heard stories where acceptance was not forthcoming?” I ask.

“Yes. Actually, for a time one of my friends from that group lived with my mom and I because he was going through that. He lived with us for almost a year because he would have been homeless otherwise.”

I was looking for statistics on the percentage of homeless transgender people and it wasn’t clearly defined, but it was reported that a transgender person is more likely to be homeless than a cisgender person.

“Not only because family might kick them out when they’re young, but there’s workplace discrimination. Trans folks are also most likely to stay homeless versus someone who has access to resources to gain wealth, to get a job, and then bring themselves out of homelessness. If you’re trans then it’s much harder. It’s worst for trans women of Color. It’s a lot harder to get access to those resources and job opportunities so you stay homeless longer.”

“Do you feel the transition has limited your choices with family, friends, or work?”

“The only reason that it would be limiting my future choices is that the federal government doesn’t recognize X as a legal gender marker, where the state government does. Getting a passport is challenging for me because my state-issued driver’s license says my gender is legally X. My birth certificate from the state of California says my gender is nonbinary. The federal government doesn’t see those as options, so I have to jump through all these hoops and prove that I’m the person that I say I am when I try to get a passport if I want to leave the country.
“At Social Security, working with the IRS, like all of that, my gender gets brought up all the time when I have to do legal stuff with the federal government. But I don’t think that that is my transition causing me limitations; I think that that’s the government causing me limitations.”

“How much do you identify with the queer community?
“Always. I actually have water bottle with all these stickers on it and there’s one that my fiancé got for me and it says “How dare you mistake me for a straight person?” I tell him all the time that when we’re out in public I don’t want people to think that we’re a straight couple. I hate being associated with straight people. I don’t know why. Well, actually I do know why and it’s the reason that I love being nonbinary so much: it’s that I want no part of the dominant culture that oppresses other people.
“I don’t want to be associated with that. It’s another reason why I love being visibly Jewish is that…I’m sorry but white Christian people have oppressed my people for the last 2021 years. And when I’m visibly Jewish, t when I put on a kippah and I have Hebrew tattoos and when I’m not wearing a mask you can see I have a pretty stereotypically Jewish nose (LAUGHTER); and all of those things plus my visible queerness detaches me from that white, straight Christian culture that oppresses other people.”

“Gotcha. Okay, so once again you’re making a statement.”

“Yeah. I’m very much a product of my generation in that. But I think the biggest reason that I do it aside from that statement which is frankly kind of secondary is that I didn’t have people that looked like me when I was growing up when I came out.
“I mean the world has changed so much even in the last five to 10 years in terms of visibilityI can be visible so that a 12-year-old walking down the street could be like, ‘Oh, there’s a future for me and I can look like that.’ You know, I thought that I had to be one way or another for so long and it was really, really hard for me to figure out how to be myself because I didn’t have any examples.
“Another really unfortunate phenomenon is self-harm and suicidal tendencies in the queer community, and statistics show that the more representation queer youth have the less likely they are to engage in those behaviors. So, if me walking down the street wearing a crop top that says ‘Gender Queer’ can help a 12-year-old not feel like they have to hurt themself, sure I’ll get a weird comment, but that’s worth it to me.”

So why the name Ezra?”

“There’s a couple of reasons. Are you familiar with the Jewish traditions of baby naming?

“A little bit. My wife is Jewish but she wasn’t raised in the faith.”

“If you are Jewish there’s a really good chance that you were named after someone. If your family settled in Eastern Europe like my family did, you’re Ashkenazi Jews;you’re probably named after a deceased loved one.So I’m named, my first initial E, my middle initial M after my great-grandparents Ethel and Max. And so when I wanted to change my name I wanted to find an E name and an M name to change it to, so I could stay honoring those people. And I knew that I wanted a Hebrew name. At the time I was actually living in Israel and I did not like the idea of having an English name that I used in the secular world and a Hebrew name that I used in the Jewish world. I didn’t like that separation of the identities; I wanted a Hebrew name in English so that my Jewishness was always a part of me, it wasn’t like code switching, you know? I was looking at Hebrew names that start with E.“I was in a Jewish history class and we were talking about the Book of Ezra and my teacher kept saying the name Ezra, and I kept turning like he was talking to me (and nobody had ever called me Ezra before so that was like a really weird moment.) I kept turning so I had my roommate try it out privately. I went to Israel as my old name and I came home as Ezra. I also chose both my first and middle names with the meanings of the names being really important. I wanted to name myself something that I really believed in… Ezra means ‘help or strength’ in Hebrew and my middle name Marnin means ‘one who brings joy’, and I really loved the idea of naming myself those two names so that I could I could live up to those characteristics. So that’s how I came up with those names. And my mom was part of the process, too. I gave her a couple of options and she told me which ones she liked.”

A lot of thought went into this, sounds like.”

“So much thought went into this, yes,” they laugh.

“Would you rather just get on with your life, pretending you were never the other gender?”

“No. Never.”

“Because that’s a part of who you are?”

“Yeah. There’s a big part of the community that likes to be stealth, which means that you basically go back in the closet once people can’t tell that you’re trans. And I don’t like that… I feel like that’s part of the reason why closets exist to come out of. Part of it is the way that we’re raised and part of it is the way that we have this internalized shame about it. So, while yes, sometimes it does make my life a lot harder to constantly be so visible, I don’t regret my transition, I don’t have shame in my transition. I refer to my younger self using my current name and pronouns and all of that. I don’t consider myself as a little girl or use she/her, but I wouldn’t be Ezra if I didn’t have those experiences first.”

“Exactly, yeah. So there was a need to out yourself in order to help those who haven’t made that commitment yet for whatever reason.”

“Yeah, for me there is. And that comes from the Jewish values that I was raised with of communal responsibility. When you’re raised in a Jewish community, whether you are the most orthodox or the most liberal, it’s very likely that you do a lot of things with your community the value of ‘yes, everybody’s an individual but we function as a collective and I’m here for you and you’re here for me and we’re each other’s lifeline.’ That’s how I was raised with my family, that’s how I was raised with my community and so I take that with me into the queer community as well.
“And that’s my favorite part about being nonbinary is that there’s no preconceived notions of what nonbinary looks like. When you think ‘man’ there’s an image in your head; when you think ‘woman’ there’s an image in your head and while it’s challenging sometimes because society hasn’t really caught up to the idea of a third gender category…it’s very liberating to not have those boxes to put myself in.”

“What are ways so-called straight allies can support your efforts?”

“Put your pronouns everywhere. Put it on your Facebook. Put it on your email signature. You see in my Zoom thing it says ‘Ezra (They/Them).’ Put them next to your name. That helps in two ways. First, it doesn’t automatically out the trans people in the room, which can be scary.Not everywhere is a safe space for trans people and if they’re automatically outed without making the choice to out themselves they could be subject to danger. But if everybody has their pronouns; it’s really hard to suss out who’s trans and who’s not.
“The second [reason] is that when straight allies have their pronouns in their social media bios, in their Zoom names, it shows me, a trans person, that if I were to be the subject of discrimination I could go to you for support. You’re someone who does believe that I deserve rights. You’re someone that does believe that I do not deserve that kind of treatment. And I wouldn’t [necessarily] know that just by looking at you unless you had your pronouns in your name… It’s an unspoken,‘I’m a safe person; if you have a problem I’m here for you.’”

“What kind of insights have you gained about this about either gender? Because you’re in a unique position in a lot of cases.”

“The idea of male privilege has become a lot more prevalent to me. I got used to the way that I was treated when I presently very femininely and I just thought that that was normal, and now that most people perceive me as masculine and I’m treated in a very different way, I’m like ‘holy shit, they treated me terribly before.’ Like why…why? I’m the same person. But just because I have a beard now it’s like I’m somebody else who deserves better treatment somehow?”

“How did that manifest itself, when you say they treated you worse when you were identifying as a female?”

“People used to cut me off all the time when I was speaking and finish my sentences, mainly masculine folks, men would mansplain, you know? They’d cut me off when I was speaking. They’d assume that I needed help with things… that I didn’t know how to do certain tasks specifically like physical tasks… people would offer to carry things for me, hold doors open for me in a very demeaning way, like I couldn’t do it myself. Now if people do those things it’s obvious it’s meant to be courteous, not like I couldn’t if I wanted to.

It seems as though the general public is growing more accepting and some have embarked on their own journey of self-discovery.

“One of the things that I found really interesting is even when I started coming out in the community eight years ago, there was a statistic that one in 10 people identifies as queer in the United States. And now that statistic is one in five. And that’s not because there are any more queer people, but because more queer people have come out of the closet and it feels safer to do that. And in my own life I’ve had that same experience. I had maybe a couple of queer friends in high school and now almost everybody that I know is queer; I call my one straight friend ‘The Token Hetero.’ I’ve got one straight friend. Not because I hate straight people, just because it seems like there are queer people all around me.
“That makes me wonder if that statistic is accurate or if that’s going to change in another five to ten years… and what social shift might happen in order to explain that statistic.”

“Yeah, a major shift is what we’re talking about.”

“Right, I mean I was 15 years old when same-sex marriage was legalized.
I remember that happening being like ‘Wow, the world really is changing.’ Now not super-fast; I still get stared at in the men’s room but legally I can marry my partner.

“Do you have any heroes or heroines or whatever the word would be there in the middle…that led the way in this whole march to making things better?”

“The first person that came to mind was Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha P. Johnson was a Black trans woman who threw the first brick at the Stonewall Riot in 1969. And then she and her friend Sylvia Rivera, who was a Latina trans woman, were the ones who started the Gay Liberation Movement in the 1960s and ’70s. So everything that we consider to be gay culture (because usually it’s associated with white cisgender gay men) was started by two trans women of Color…”

We are constantly reminded that despite all the so-called advances made by the LGBTQ community, there is still a distance to go before total acceptance and assimilation into mainstream society, if that is, indeed, the ultimate goal.

“Any regrets?”

“I don’t regret the choices that I made. I wish that I had had language for this sooner. I think it would have helped me a lot if I wasn’t 12 years old convincing myself that I was a girl who had a crush on a boy; that was a really weird time, in seventh grade!” they laugh.
“If I had language that a person like me could exist I wouldn’t have had to go through all of that really intense mental turmoil at the time. But I would do it all again.”

“It must be difficult to talk about these issues so openly.”

“Two things. First, I’m very open and willing to talk about these things. I know that a very large portion of the community is not. And I don’t want anybody who might read something that I have said to think that everybody has the same opinion or that everybody would be so open and willing to talk about these really intimate details of our lives.”

“Right.”

“I’ve gotten so used to talking about it I’m fine with it and part of it’s a really negative reason which is that in a lot of job spaces and social circles I’ve been tokenized a lot. They know that I’m trans and so they ask me to talk about it and for a long time I had a really hard time saying no… I’m doing this with you because I know that it will help people,but these things are very intimate and very personal and not everyone’s going to want to talk about them. And the second thing is there are some people who have shame in their transitions or who come from religious communities and most of the folks that I know happen to come from Christian communities that were very oppressive and their queerness is entirely surrounded by trauma. And I don’t want people to hear that there’s this one trans kid from a progressive religious community is now the norm.
“My partner is queer. He identifies with an LGBTQ community and his religious upbringing was very different from mine. And that still happens. There are still queer kids sitting in churches with pastors telling them that they’re going to go to Hell.”

“Aversion therapy and all that, yes.”

“I don’t want anybody to either overemphasize the progress or the lack thereof. Yes, we are making progress and that’s wonderful, but I don’t want that progress to overshadow the people who are still suffering, nor do I want people to only focus on the negatives and think that we’re not making any progress at all.

“Yeah I’ve heard it asked…does the queer community have an agenda? And people say no but I think there is an agenda and that’s to be treated like everybody else.”

“The agenda is to exist without worrying that I’m going to be beaten up in a bathroom. That’s my agenda. Or my agenda is to marry my partner next year and, unfortunately, we’ve had to not invite a couple of family members whom we know are not super supportive. The agenda is to be loved by our families. That’s it. To be loved by our families and exist in the world without fear.”

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